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The Gujarati samosa is a good symbol of India’s syncretic culinary heritage

Last November, my friend Ash Lilani took me to the Portland Steak House in Bengaluru.

Among his other guests was Rezwan Razack, of the Prestige Group, one of the city’s largest construction companies.

 

Rezwan has many claims to fame – he must be the world’s biggest collector of Indian banknotes – but I was most interested in his vast knowledge of food.

 

   As we talked, Rezwan mentioned various dishes that I could enjoy if I went to the right places in Bengaluru. All of them sounded fascinating but frankly, I was a little sceptical of his claim that he knew somebody who made outstanding samosas in Bengaluru. “You will never have eaten samosas of this quality,” he assured me.

 

   Samosas? In Bengaluru? Really?

 

   But Rezwan is a generous and persistent man. So that evening, he had a parcel delivered to my hotel room. It was a package of samosas.

 

   It was a kind gesture but honestly, there was enough to eat and do in Bengaluru. So the parcel remained unopened till the following day when I took it back to Delhi with me. “I have brought some samosas,” I told my wife. “A friend sent them over. They were made yesterday so I’m not sure how fresh they will be. But let’s try them anyway.” So, we warmed them in the oven and tried a couple.

 

   My first reaction was one of surprise. They did not look like the samosas I was used to. It was partly that unlike the stodgy, solidly cast North Indian samosas, these were so delicate and flaky that they reminded me of fine French pastry. But there was also the difference in shape. They were not triangular; they were almost rectangular in shape. And then, there was the filling: delicious, intensely flavoured keema.

 

   And this was around 30 hours or so after they had been made. My wife and I looked at each other. This was, we agreed, a real discovery.

 

   Last month I was back in Bengaluru briefly, on my way to the Maldives. I texted Rezwan. Where had he got the samosas from? He sent me the number of Anisa, who made them to order. I phoned her from Delhi and asked if I could order some. We started at a dozen pieces and then, my greed got the better of me and I ordered 20.

 

   Asif, who looks after me when I am at the ITC Windsor, had them collected from Anisa and soon after we checked in, he served us tea and samosas. Oh my God, I thought to myself as I bit into one, these are even better than I remember!

 

   The next day, we flew to the Maldives and the hellish service on my Air India flight was made bearable because I had packed Anisa’s samosas to eat on the plane. There were still some left and that evening, at the Taj Exotica, we sat on the beach by the lagoon, drinking bubbly and polishing off the last of Anisa’s samosas.

 

   When I got back to Delhi, I phoned Anisa. Who had she got her samosa recipe from?

 

   It was her grandmother, she said. This was a traditional Kutchi Memon recipe. Memons! The penny should have dropped much earlier. Ash, Rezwan and I are all Gujaratis of one sort or another. Ash is a Hindu from Kutch and Rezwan is a Kutchi Memon. And I am a (keema-samosa- loving) Gujarati Jain.

 

"The samosa has followed a similar path. It is so tasty and so ubiquitous that none of us could be bothered to see it in Hindu-Muslim terms. All that matters is the flavour."

   In this era, when India is ruled by Gujaratis, we tend to think of Gujarati identity in one dimensional terms. But there is actually tremendous cultural and religious diversity in the state: Rezwan, Ash and I are three Gujaratis with three different religions. And the cuisine of each Gujarati community can be exceptional. It was the Bengaluru location that had misled me! These were Gujarati samosas from one of our Muslim communities.

 

  I am not sure what the historical reasons are, but there has been a flourishing Kutchi Memon community in Bengaluru for generations. (If you are tempted by Anisa’s samosas, you can look up her catering service on the net. It is called Anisa’s Kitchen.)

 

   When I wrote, some years ago, about the samosa and its Middle Eastern origins, there were howls of outrage and incredulity from readers. “Are you saying that the samosa is not an Indian dish?” was the most common response. Well, sorry about that. But no, the original samosa is not ours to claim. As Colleen Taylor Sen points out in her authoritative Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, we can find samosa recipes in Arab cookbooks dating back to the 10th century. The word ‘samosa’ comes from the Arabic ‘sambusak’, which is what they still call the samosa in the Middle East. Arab traders brought it to India around the 12th century.

 

   You can trace the development of most of the Middle Eastern dishes that have become part of the Indian tradition. We have a rough idea of how the open-fire kebabs of the Turks were transformed by Indian cooks. We can see how the pilaffs of West Asia were sophisticated into the biryanis of Lucknow and Hyderabad.

 

   But there is an important difference between the samosa and most of these dishes. Even today, we regard biryani as a dish associated with Muslim communities. And even when kebabs are not necessarily Muslim in origin (such as the tandoori cooking of Punjabi cuisine which was popularised by Hindu refugees in Delhi after Partition) we still associate them with foreign cities (Bukhara, Samarkand, Kandahar, etc.)

 

   But the samosa knows no such communal divide. It is one dish that is as Hindu as it is Muslim. Most Hindus don’t even know that the Arabs gifted it to India and Muslims are content to share their traditions with all communities.

 

   Which is why I think the Gujarati samosa is a good symbol of India’s syncretic culinary heritage. While we think of the Mughal court in terms of kormas and biryanis, the truth is more complex. Emperor Jahangir had a food-loving Persian wife and a kitchen brigade of hundreds of chefs. But Jahangir had simple tastes. While travelling through Gujarat, he once tried the local bajra khichri. He loved it so much that he recruited Gujarati cooks and took them back to Delhi.

 

   They were put to work in the royal kitchen and their primary job was to make vegetarian Gujarati khichri for the Emperor. Inevitably, other court chefs tried to make more elaborate versions of the khichri, and even the Gujarati original became so popular that Mughal courtiers began eating it every day for breakfast. A breakfast khichri tradition continues, to this day, among Hyderabadi Muslims.

 

   Now, thanks to Jahangir, khichri, an essentially Gujarati Hindu dish, has no communal connotations. They eat it in Pakistan, they make a variation in Bangladesh (kisuri is the Sylheti name, though khichuri is the more common Bengali version), and it has been transformed into kushari in Egypt. That breakfast staple of English country houses, kedgeree, is a version of the khichri that Brits encountered at the Mughal court.

 

   The samosa has followed a similar path. It is so tasty and so ubiquitous that none of us could be bothered to see it in Hindu-Muslim terms. All that matters is the flavour.

 

   What could be more representative of today’s India than three Gujaratis of three different religions meeting in Bengaluru in South India to eat a dish that was originally created by the Turks?

 

   The best Indian food is like the best parts of Indian life. It rises above religion and focuses instead on the things that really matter: refinement and quality.
 

 

CommentsComments

  • S. Rao 17 Feb 2017

    Well, the samosas that have been mentioned (Anisa’s) are more like a combination of Samosa & a "puff", which is extremely common & fabulously tasty snack at most "Iyengar" Bakery's in Bangalore. I wouldn't be surprised if they are baked as well to produce the crispness. Vir, on your next Bangalore visit, I would recommend "VB Bakery" & Sindhi sweets in many parts of Blore, which welcomes & innovates.

  • Yasmin Toddywala 12 Feb 2017

    Haven't been to Bangalore in ages
    But if I get your description of the pastry cover right, I think something similar is made in Indonesia and the Malay belt here.... and frankly it is disgusting!!!
    My guess is that your caterer made this pastry home made, and the hard traditional way. In the Malay belt, they use the baker's pastry and the filling. Its rich flaky and so terribly fatty that the taste buds can't feel and enjoy the filling. Its terribly fattening too!!!

  • Carol 12 Feb 2017

    Fascinating
    ...only pitying the poor girl who's catering service is going to be over-run with orders for Keema samosas
    One secret most non-veg cooks (including the Hindus) won't admit is that the secret to great flavoring comes not from the masalas but from using the right stock

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